The cupola atop St. Augustine Church looks as though a stone-eating giant took a massive bite from its side. A few blocks away, a crack as wide as a brawny arm snakes down the white facade of the Company of Jesus Church. Inside St. Jeronimo, a forest of scaffolding attempts to prevent 364 years of ornate architecture from crumbling to the ground.

"Maybe it's God's punishment," said Teofilo Santo Martinez, 29, one of hundreds of construction workers laboring to rescue dozens of churches in this colonial city, where an earthquake two months ago toppled bell towers, shook apart ancient walls and smashed centuries-old relics.

Although earthquakes rattle Mexico with frequency, the tremor that hit the south-central state of Puebla on June 15 was startling in its path of destruction: some of the most prized architectural and religious gems of a state renowned for its churches.

"Sadly enough, the churches suffered the worst damage," said Pedro Angel Palou, the state minister of culture.

Officials estimate that nearly one-third of Puebla's 3,000 churches were damaged by the 6.7-magnitude quake that killed 17 people. In the state capital--also named Puebla, located about 60 miles southeast of Mexico City and described by some tourist guides as the Rome of Mexico because of its wealth of extraordinary houses of worship-- the destruction was particularly agonizing. It's almost impossible to round a corner in the historic district without seeing a church arch braced by boards, a battered tower besieged by workers or a facade embraced by scaffolding.

"Right after the earthquake there were rumors circulating . . . that the world was going to end," said Jose Luis Lopez, 37, father superior of St. Augustine Church, which sustained some of the worst damage. "I spent a lot of time with the families helping them to understand what was happening. After that, people began to say that it made sense that God preferred to destroy his own house rather than theirs."

Architects and preservationists have a more secular theory as to why churches seemed to be singled out by the earthquake after surviving more than four centuries of war, bombardment, other earthquakes and eruptions from a nearby volcano. Some blame poor maintenance, neglect and shoddy repairs.

"One of the primary causes of the damage was the modifications that had been made to the churches, especially in the last century," said Jose Francisco Ortiz, state director of the National Anthropological and Historical Institute, which is overseeing the reconstruction. "If something cracked or a structure fell, the problems were solved by adding more material and, therefore, lots of weight to the structure."

While the original structures were built of stone and mortar made of lye and sand, which allowed the buildings to be somewhat flexible, repairs and additions of the last few decades tended to use more rigid materials.

When the ground began to rumble in June, Ortiz said "the newer parts acted like battering rams knocking against the old parts."

Founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1531, Puebla has long been considered one of Latin America's most stunning cities. Its churches--there are 70 in this city of nearly 1 million people--are a mix of heavy baroque, neoclassical and classical styles. Their cavernous insides are gilded with buckets of gold, adorned with extravagant statues of saints and angels, and furnished with lavish mahogany, onyx and marble fixtures--testimony to the city's wealth across four centuries. The main Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is so large it took nearly two centuries to build.

But one church cupola has toppled three times in 200 years and has never been properly repaired, officials say. Century-old political squabbles thwarted preservationists from adding buttresses to a weak wall of the Company of Jesus Church, a frilly white structure. That very wall cracked under the pressure of the recent quake, and authorities now allow the buttresses.

Nobody agrees on how much money will be needed to repair and restore the damaged churches. Some estimates top $100 million. Thus far the federal government has offered $19 million, and church and private groups have collected a modest $40,000.

Meanwhile, the priests of Puebla, many of whom have been holding Masses in private homes or abandoned houses, have encountered another problem. "The number of people attending Mass at St. Augustine has dropped considerably because it's not the same to hear the word of God in a little place as in such large, impressive temple," said Father Lopez. "We hope the people will come back."

Researcher Garance Burke contributed to this report.

CAPTION: The June 15 earthquake took a big chunk out of the cupola on top of St. Augustine Church in Puebla, Mexico's "Rome."